Destination: Zagreb Airport.
Our beat up car is rattling down the highway- a lone wolf winding through construction sites and thick patches of fog. We’re all Free Fallin’ with Tom Petty, and beef jerky and Twizzlers are keeping us awake. For once, the sky actually is the deep black velvet that the poets talk about, with millions of stars shining clearly in the cold. From my window, the sea is visible where it’s not blocked out by black hills rising up, huge and two-dimensional. For a few seconds at a time I see lights from distant villages, the same lights reflected by a handful of clouds that show up white and ghostly. There is no moon.
We attempt to sing along to ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’ before Simon and Garfunkel start in on Mrs. Robinson. Andy’s mom is sick. We don’t know much more than that, but we’re on a mission to get him home. I imagine all the Croatian families enjoying post-midnight-mass Christmas dinners in the middle of this odd, silent night. I wonder what it would be like to be Andy – worried, tired, desperate. I think about my dad and his wife, and my mom and sister and brothers, I know they’re all together at my grandparents’ house and I wish I could be there. But I’m glad I don’t have to fly home for an emergency. Kind of a Catch-22, really.
Now we’re definitely in the mountains. There is snow and the sky is all pink and glowy and the Smashing Pumpkins provide both the soundtrack and the motivation to forge ahead.
Christmas. It snuck up on me this year, and I don’t feel prepared emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or practically. I haven’t even wrapped presents yet. We missed going to mass on account of unexpected developments with Andy. I try to make it mean something to me. Jesus, God, came to us as a baby. He limited Himself to come to us, to die for us, so we could know Him. It isn’t sinking in. For Christ to leave heaven to come down to this earth – home of pain and suffering and betrayal and blood and tears and death – is (rightly) seen as a great sacrifice, an unthinkable humbling. But there is also Andy’s mother, and we’re terrified she might die, even though for her it would mean leaving all of that to go be in the presence of all Glory and Perfection and Beauty and Life.
Why do we think like that? Is it only selfishness that makes us want to keep those we love here with us? Is it only unbelief that makes us continue to fear death on some level even though we have an ultimate hope beyond death? Maybe. Maybe it’s selfishness and unbelief, but I also think that it’s partly an unknowing and partly a genuine love of the good that is here.
Because it is here that we learn about life and beauty and love and glory, and the only glimpses of ultimate goodness and perfection we’ve seen have been seen here, amidst the pain and wrong and darkness. Yes, we want to be with Christ and see all that He has prepared and be all that He has created us to be. But, for now, this world is where we have learned to love Him and to love others. Sometimes I am eager to leave it all behind, to get the hell out, so to speak, but not tonight.
Adam Duritz whines his way through ‘A Long December’ and I remember Katie Walsh, who’s reached her final destination and almost certainly understands all of this better than I do.
We’re finally at the airport and it only takes us a few tries to get to the area where you drop off departing passengers. The place is deserted, except for a single guard (or taxi driver?) standing in the cold across the street. We take turns going to the restroom and notice 3 or 4 travelers sleeping on benches. Andy will have to wait a few hours for the ticket counter to open so before leaving him we go through a few last cultural rituals for old times’ sake. We hug and say our goodbyes and get in the car to head home. In search of coffee, or anything, really, we make a few gas station stops and hit the highway armed with Snickers ice cream bars and cappuccinos that taste like watered-down potting soil.
The visibility is terrible, which helps keep us alert. Sunny keeps the conversation going with questions like, “How many kids do you guys want to have?” and we answer sincerely, and at length, because it’s 5:30 in the morning and we’ve got nothing better to do. John keeps the music going, and I try to navigate through the fog.
We roll into town at the first light of dawn, walk back to our apartments, and greet Christmas morning by crawling into bed.